On The Rocket: A Review

Last night, CP24 premiered a new show featuring TTC Chair Adam Giambrone talking about the transit system and fielding calls/texts/emails from viewers.  Giambrone’s guest for the evening was Mitch Stambler, TTC’s Manager of Service Planning.

Their show, broadcast live from a streetcar looping via Queen, Spadina, College/Carlton and Parliament, touched on many issues but none of them deeply.

Right off the top, CP24’s Anne Rohmer asked about the pending fare increase.  Giambrone replied that fares had to go up to maintain and improve service, but that he was concerned about the proposed jump in Metropass pricing, the fare that affects the majority of adult rides taken on the system.  By now, they had reached Rohmer’s stop, and the rest of the evening was the Adam & Mitch Show.

A brief cutaway took us to Roncesvalles Division’s CIS control room, the location where all streetcar routes are managed.  I was amused by a comment about how they short turn cars to ensure regular service on the trips back into town.  This is precisely the sort of problem raised by a later caller, but the irony of that focus on the central part of lines was lost on all but the alert viewers.  The quick tour also stopped off at Harvey Shops where the CLRV overhaul is in progress. 

CP24 did their usual bit of playing over-the-top music for this segment.  It may be their style, but it got in the way.

The first question from a caller concerned accessibility.  This set the pattern for much of what would follow — an answer that really didn’t fully address the question.  After a commercial break, the show returned to a different topic, but picked up on accessibility again eventually.  We heard too much about how complicated it all is and not enough about when things would actually happen (not to mention the effect of recent capital budget cuts on the TTC’s plans).

Discussions of Metropasses (which celebrate their 30th birthday in May 2010) got lost answering a question that seemed to be about the availability of the VIP discount program for people who are not part of a large organization.  We learned that the TTC will roll out 12 Presto! equipped subway stations soon, but that they’re also looking at using credit and debit cards as the “smart card” for the system.

One caller complained that his bus service, formerly every 11 minutes, now runs half-hourly.  The obvious question not asked of the caller was “which route”, although my suspicion is that it would be something that was deeply cut after the Sheppard Subway opened.  That question baffled the TTC, and shouldn’t have.

One caller wanted more revenue from advertising.  There’s no easy way to say this:  advertising represents about 1% of the total TTC revenue, and there is a point at which the subway stops looking like the TTC owns it and simply becomes a rampant extension of Dundas Square.  A very good case could be made for getting rid of advertising on the TTC completely, but the TTC is desperate for every penny.  This is a discussion worth having in the vein of “what do you want your city to look like”.

Bunching buses (seven in a row on Finch East) brought the usual discussion of how transit can’t work properly in mixed traffic.  Oddly enough, this was for a bus route, rather than the usual victim of this argument, streetcars.  Finch has very frequent service, and some bunching is inevitable.  The real question is what the TTC does about it.

Someone wanted to know when the subway would come to Vaughan.  In reply, we had a lot of talk about the Richmond Hill subway proposal, although the question was actually about the Spadina extension.

From southern Etobicoke, a caller complained about service on the Long Branch car west of Kipling (the last chance for a short turn before the end of the line).  We heard about the Queen split trial and the usual handwringing about managing service, but nothing about policy issues such as service quality on the outer ends of lines.

A question about LED lighting for energy savings actually brought a useful reply.  The benefit of LED lighting over modern, high-quality fluorescents is not large, and the bigger benefit of transit is to get people out of cars.  However, this skated around the question of saving energy on TTC operations where it makes sense to do so, and ignored the question of the suitability of the LED lights now on trial at St. Andrew Station.

A former Metropass parking user complained about the increase in costs coupled with an ongoing problem of rubbish accumulation at Wilson Station.  The answer was that riders shouldn’t have to subsidize people who park, but the question of cleanliness was completely ignored.  Oddly enough, there are plans in the works to turn some of the subway parking lots (notably three of those at Wilson) over to Build Toronto for redevelopment, and the TTC will have the right to continue parking operations only until the end of 2010 if another use for the land is found.  (Links to report and site list.)

One caller asked why his blind son could not use Wheel Trans to get to work.  In what had to be the worst answer of the evening, we learned that Wheel Trans is for those who cannot use the conventional system.  The answer completely missed the point that a blind person does not have a map of the city coded into his brain, and that he may have great difficulty trying to commute, especially to a new location.  Just because he can walk doesn’t mean he can use the TTC.

Finally, the question of a timed transfer (say, two hours for one fare) brought the reply that it would cost $15-20-million in lost revenue that the TTC would prefer to devote to service.  That’s an interesting answer because, like so many of the ridership growth initiatives, it’s not a vast amount of money.  Would people pay a higher fare if, in return, they got a limited time pass?

Overall, the show felt a lot like the “public participation” we get from civic agencies.  Answers don’t address questions asked, there’s always a reason not to do something, and there are too few cases where the public actually has a good idea.

On the technical side, the CP24 remote truck managed to stay in contact with the studio almost all of the time, with a bit of signal breakup near Parliament Street.  (The show almost didn’t start because the link back to the studio was not working with only one minute to air time.)  One major sound problem was the ever-present hum of a very noisy power inverter on the CLRV.  This device changes the frequency of its hum while turn signals or four-way flashers are on, and this was quite noticeable during the show.  Next time out, they need to find a quieter car.

I’ve been invited to be the guest for the November broadcast, and I hope we will be able to talk about transit policies and problems with more focus on rider concerns and what needs to be done to improve the system.

28 thoughts on “On The Rocket: A Review

  1. Keep us updated. Sadly, I don’t have cable, but I hope you can get real answers to the questions when you get on.


  2. From your review, it seems that people rang in with sensible questions that were answered badly or not at all (by providing an answer to a different question).
    Imagine doing that in a job interview…

    Steve, come the November broadcast, could you try and get any TTC person to answer the question put to them? I appreciate you may not be able to, but SOME decent answers would be a good thing.

    Was the hum actual noise audible in the vehicle, or was it electrical interference?

    Steve: That hum is audible in some vehicles. They seem to have picked a particularly bad one.


  3. “I’ve been invited to be the guest for the November broadcast, ”

    No need to post this comment … I assume you mean December broadcast – or is the show more frequent than monthly?

    Steve: The next show will be in the last week of November, I understand.


  4. What idiot decided we needed less parking space at commuter lots? These things are packed, often with people parking in places that are not parking spaces.


  5. I’d love to see a Toronto Transit discussion on The Agenda, with guests Steve Munro, Ed Drass, James Bow, Gary Webster, Adam Giambrone and Mitch Stambler.

    Each of the first three get 1 of the starting questions/topics, + 5 others submitted by riders/viewers etc., leaving a good, 5 minutes for back and forth on each question.

    That would be good on the CP24 show too, but those are more viewer oriented, and not generally suited to the larger discussion.


  6. Does the streetcar run in service carrying passengers while they’re making the show?

    Here’s an article from Broadcaster Magazine on how they get the show from the streetcar back to the studio.

    I’m not sure what to think of this, not having watched the show, but I was concerned that it would be used as nothing more than another venue for the TTC to snow job the public with excuses. Unfortunately from what’s been written about Giambrone’s replies to the question, it sounds like that’s the case.

    Steve: I think it will be important that future guests be people who bring a view of the TTC that is not the corporate outlook, force a discussion of issues, and don’t trot out the standard gospel to each question.

    The article you linked says that the car runs in service, but I understand that they were not generally picking up customers. If you watch the show carefully, you can see them running right past major stops on several occasions. People who were onboard were likely pre-arranged.


  7. Steve reviews: “Overall, the show felt a lot like the “public participation” we get from civic agencies. Answers don’t address questions asked, there’s always a reason not to do something, and there are too few cases where the public actually has a good idea.”

    There’s an ability of officials to answer a different question, or to misinterpret the question asked, to their own benefit — no matter how carefully you frame and phrase the question. It must be genetic….

    While it’s true that the public has many bad ideas and few good ideas, the public also has many well-grounded complaints and not so many ungrounded complaints.

    Maybe because officials don’t really listen to the public’s complaints, the public feels that they’d listen to solutions?

    (“Bring me solutions, not problems.” Mark of a bad boss.)


  8. Re: Picard102 What lots are you talking about? Kipling’s lots are much emptier now that free Metropass parking is gone. I had heard that this was a similar situation throughout the city. It seems they have quite a surplus now. GO lots are a much different story, however.

    Steve: If you read the report, you will see that the lots to be turned over to Build Toronto are at Islington and Wilson. I suspect they will not be the last to go. It’s finally dawning on even the TTC that a building full of people generates riders too, indeed possibly better than a parking lot.


  9. “Overall, the show felt a lot like the “public participation” we get from civic agencies. Answers don’t address questions asked, there’s always a reason not to do something, and there are too few cases where the public actually has a good idea.”

    In my limited experience, this is because the public has already asked pretty much every broad question that can be asked. The only questions/ideas that are good are the ones for which we have shifted thinking as a society.

    Very specific questions tend to require a much deeper understanding than the politician or project manager has. So they answer the question they wanted to be asked instead of the one that was asked.

    The better question is how come these FAQs don’t have well thought out answers as to why they do not work, ideally combined with the set of assumptions/assertions that cause the answer to be correct.

    For the show questions, it seemed the person taking the questions wasn’t very aware of what the answer might be and failed to adjust the information the caller was providing.

    Often they will get that information from you in advance or prompt you to change your wording to prevent the host from having to do the investigative thinking on their feet.


  10. Hi Steve,

    Do you know if this new show is going to be airing once a month or weekly?

    This show can have some potential to become a TTC ‘bitchfest’ with people calling in to only complain about problems but not suggest any solutions or useful suggestions.

    Steve: Roughly monthly, although the next show is within November. I think they are moving it back within the calendar to miss the Christmas season, so it may be every three weeks until it settles into a regular slot.

    As for a bitchfest, yes, that could happen, but the calls are screened. All the same, it would be worth having one or two per show. A clever host will split the underlying problem away from the specifics of a caller’s experience and discuss how a more general problem might be addressed across the system.


  11. I think the Agenda idea is a good one, but I think focusing on TTC alone is a bit parochial for an Ontario-wide show. At the very least Gary McNeil and/or Rob Pritchard should be on there and given that the Agenda usually limits to 5-6 guests in the roundtable that means fewer of the unpaid transit promoters.

    Alternatively, maybe a week long series which the Agenda does sometime do, focusing on different transportation issues such as Northern Ontario services, how transit gets funded and how can we get consistent funding (with John Baird and Jim Bradley invited, along with someone from Transport 2000 and someone from the US connected to the federal schemes there), transportation in rural Ontario, joined up transport in the Ottawa-Gatineau region and of course improving service between Windsor and Quebec.

    In any event I think the On The Rocket series should not be hosted by the Commission Chair. It looks all wrong, because he is an elected official and should have a neutral host ensuring he answers the questions as asked. Also – it’s notable that the Chair of the Police Services Board doesn’t appear on CP24 – the Chief of Police does. Having Gary Webster and Mitch Stambler every other show would be more useful because so many complaints out there are operational, not policy driven.

    Steve: When I was on The Agenda, there was a good give-and-take around the table among people with a variety of backgrounds. None of us, of course, was moderator, and Steve Paikin does a good job of moving the focus among several guests and topics. Unlike a show on CP24, you don’t have breaks for commercials, and the discussions run longer and more coherently.

    I’m not sure that Gary or Mitch would work any better than Adam. What is needed is a host who understands the topic well enough to manage both the guests and the callers, but who generally does not take a position except for the purpose of directing the conversation. Dale Goldhawk is a good example.

    Any show that descended into an hour of people calling to complain about their bus service would quickly lose viewer interest because it would be repetitive, and little would appear to be done to address problems on a system-wide basis. Policy discussions are difficult to hold in fast Q&A conversations. I know from doing many interviews that it’s tricky to stay focussed and get one message out within a five minute chat.


  12. Picard102. Quite the contrary, the parking lots at Finch are quite empty during the weekday daytimes (last I saw not too long ago). Must be the increased costs of metropass parking kicking in.

    Unfortunately, I feel this show is a poor choice to gather discussions on the transit system. Half of the questions (not to mention the answers) I find do not even deal with the core problem of quality of the transit system itself, but more of the “why can’t they put service here or there” variety. There needs to be some cohesive direction on how to improve transit service, and based on the interview with Giambrone, I am not seeing it.

    I think we need more of a GTA-centric view of transit rather than just the TTC alone. The question about the Spadina subway extension is a clear indication that the program shouldn’t solely be about Toronto. James has a good point about having a panel of transit discussions with noted transit authorities like Steve, Ed Drass, etc. We also need representation from the 905 as well. I’d like to throw my hat into that ring, but I think the lefties would probably throw it right back.


  13. I had thought the automated stop announcements had been implemented specifically for the visually impaired. Did the caller elaborate on why his son still could not use standard TTC routes despite this?

    Steve: No, he did not. The point I was trying to make in my post is that one cannot assume that a blind person can just wander out their front door and find their way through the city to an unfamiliar location. The stop announcements are fine for someone who already is on a vehicle, but they must get to it first. Moreover, if they exit at an unfamiliar station or intersection, how do they navigate to their destination? It is also possible that the caller’s son had other cognitive problems that would have further complicated his learning a new route.

    The TTC’s response was insensitive and showed that they had not thought through all of the steps involved in getting from “A” to “B” and back again.

    The show’s format, which precluded a real interaction between callers and folks on-camera, meant that a poor answer was never interrupted or challenged by a caller saying “no, that’s not what I asked”, or “but you missed the point”.


  14. 12 Presto-equopped stations? I’ll bite. What is Presto?

    Steve: The provincial smart card. I understand they have spent $150-million so far on it.


  15. Some of these things are easy to fix, they just require someone to implement them. For example bunching, this is a problem typically for frequent service routes. You put a supervisor on the station platform, with a stop watch, they know how often a bus should leave the station, so they hold the buses and release them on schedule.

    Say the frequency is every 3 minutes 10 seconds, the supervisor holds the buses that come in, they tell the first bus to go, start the stopwatch, the second one comes into the platform and loads, after 3:10 they tell that bus to go, and repeat. Because the buses are always set back on schedule at the station, you only get 2 or 3 buses in a herd. Currently the buses come in, load, go, if they are “behind schedule” they may not even load, but just go. So each time they go around the loop you get more bunching.


  16. I think that, especially at Wilson, most of the demand for parking could probably be satisfied by expanded capacity further north, at Downview or Steeles West in the future, and depending on the success of the Gramercy Park development nearby, the area may actually redevelop if only due to its proximity to the subway, 401 and of course Yorkdale. Given the development around Downsview station as well, I’d say that its worth a shot.


  17. Listened to with a “musical” perspective, that inverter hum could be quite interesting on some CLRV’s. If you combine breaking/accelerating with turn signals, you get a very interesting micro-tonal progression up and down within the interval of a Major-Third.


  18. The answer regarding the Metropass parking is a farce. Right now TTC management is claiming that they are losing too much money on the Metropass because people are using it too much. Assuming this is true, it is also safe to assume that a good percentage of people who used Metropass parking were 9-5 commuters who only used the TTC to get to and from work. So assuming they used the TTC 40 times per month, the TTC was getting about $2.73 per ride, compared to $2.25 from token users. Now that the TTC charges approximately $5 per day to park, if one who used to use Metropass parking switches to tokens and parks it costs them $4.75 per trip – a 74% increase!

    Of course many of these commuters either took the bus to the station, thus the TTC only gets $2.25, or now drive their entire commutes, and the TTC gets $0. They essentially bit the hand that feeds. If they did the smart thing and sold Metropass parking pass for $119 (an extra $10 per month, or $0.25 per trip) then the Metropass would not be facing nearly a $20 increase, since they could sell the standard pass at about $120 and the parking pass at $130.


  19. There have been a few comments about parking that I’d like to respond to.

    There is a simple question that is not being asked here. That is what will the people who currently park do if the parking spot vanishes. Let’s assume these people all live within Toronto. They have two options. Either catch the TTC near their house, or, drive all the way to their destination.

    I say they will do the latter. If they were willing to catch the TTC near their house, they would catch the TTC near their house, not drive, pay, then get on the subway.

    You could build an office building to get “new riders”, but how many of these “new riders” are in fact old riders who now work some place different? The same can be said for condos.

    The stated objective of the city is to get people out of their cars and on to transit. If we have the option of getting them out of their car for half the trip, versus none of the trip, should we not take the half? I’d rather encourage these people to catch the TTC near their house though service improvements, not force them to do so by taking away their parking.


  20. To answer previous questions, you don’t have to book in advance or anything to get on the streetcar, but you can only get on at McCaul Loop before the show starts. They’ll let you off anywhere along the way you want on request (and I don’t mean pull the yellow cord). I know this as I was on board that streetcar the other night.


  21. @Ben: AFAIK, the parking lots are still full despite the elimination of Metropass parking. Ergo, it was at worst a revenue neutral measure.

    If the goal is making a profit, the ideal is to price so that demand does not exceed supply. $5 might even be too low.


  22. I watched the program and got sick of the “If we had the money” garbage. For example, other Ontario cities (Mississauga, and Ottawa) have time based transfers, yet Mitch Stambler claimed that the TTC could not time based transfers because of “money.” While I agree that the TTC requires money to operate, it did get a bit stupid that everything seemed to have the same answer.

    Steve: The entire premise of the Ridership Growth Strategy as well as the Transit City Bus Plan (aka RGS II) was to place various policy options before politicians and the public along with their cost and other potential effects on the system. Then let people decide whether scheme “A” or “B” is worth what it would cost.

    Just saying “we have no money” is no answer at all, and is sadly a mode of thinking typical of the TTC in the pre-Miller/Giambrone days.

    A two-hour fare costs $15-20 million per year in lost revenue. Putting that in perspective, that’s about 15-20% of the current TTC budget hole for which a 25-cent fare hike is proposed. Would people pay another nickel to get a two-hour pass? We need to at least have the discussion, not dismiss it out of hand.


  23. The thing about these parking lots is that, except in the case of Finch where it occupies a useless hydro corridor, they represent a suburban land use, and they can be put to much better use. Even lots at Wilson that are near highways will begin to see some value/demand for development, and I cannot think of many locations where there isn’t a potential to redevelop these lots into something more pedestrian and transit friendly. As well, if you were parking at Wilson or Downsview or even Eglinton West for your trip downtown, I don’t think, after a few commutes’ experience, that you would want to keep driving the whole way. It is not fun.


  24. I was the one who called about the service level on my bus route. I was calling about the Keele 41.

    I have a pole card stating that the service would be a combined every 11 minutes between the old 41B (Forthbridge) and the 41D (York University) until 2:30am Monday to Friday and every 15 minutes on weekends from Landsdowne Station to Wilson.

    Service is now every 15 minutes from 8:15pm to 10:30pm, then every 24 minutes from 10:54 to 12:06am, then every 30 minutes from 12:30am to 2:30am Monday to Friday.

    Saturday 8:00pm to 9:45 – every 15 minutes, 10:01pm to to 12:57am – every 22 minutes, then 20 minutes until 1:40am.

    Sunday – 7:07pm to 8:55 – every 18 minutes, 9:17pm to 12:57am – every 22 minutes, then 20 minutes until 1:40am.

    This route has increased passengers to the point drivers are leaving them behind during these times, yet service has been DECREASED since that time.

    Steve: For the benefit of readers, the service formerly provided by the Keele via Forthbridge 41B is now part of the 120 Calvington route. I am baffled about the absence of the 41 from the “10 minute network” proposed in the Transit City Bus Plan.


  25. Being perfectly fit and of good vision I confess to having the odd moment of confusion when at an unfamiliar subway station or street corner in town. But can you imagine not being able to see and realize that noise that could be a bus coming to pick me up may in fact not be the Leslie bus, but rather a Leaside or Eglinton East bus? Or even knowing which way it is to the escalator, never mind which direction you’re facing when you come up the stairs at Bay Station?

    In some ways the blind seem to have become just like the rest of us, but with poor or no vision and some sixth sense that will let them easily navigate the transit system. A blind person slowly finding their way toward the escalator could be rundown by the frantic, impatient and often ignorant commuters of a Toronto rush hour. How would a blind person feel comfortable being the 54th passenger on the bus and trying to get to the door for their stop?

    As an aside it would be interesting to know how many wheelchair-bound riders head to Wheel Trans for the same reason – that they are uncomfortable riding on jam packed “accessible” buses with people who have a lot more mobility than they do. Of course accessibility makes people who aren’t handicapped feel good about themselves, so we’ve buried millions into something that will likely make heads spin if we ever knew the true cost.

    It just seems that the idea that they have done “something” – the automated announcements – will fill the visually impaired cup and absolve the TTC of any further worry or responsibility to them.

    I support wholeheartedly getting them onto the Wheel Trans system if they so desire. If being blind isn’t a disability and reason for special measures to guarantee their safety I don’t know what is.


  26. Japanese systems are extremely advanced in their systems provisions for aiding riders with a visual impairment on their public transit systems. They may be the best in the world at such design. It is truly extensive. The TTC has a long way to go in making it user-friendly for riders with a visual impairment. Stop announcements barely even scratches the surface. When steel hand railings at stairs include braile at the top and bottom of the flight, in addition to the bumped and lined guiding tiles (both in the station and in the immediate vicinity outside the station), then progress in that department is being made.


  27. Mm, Karl, very few blind people read Braille.

    The general problem being discussed here is one of orientation and mobility, or “O&M” in the biz. The much-disliked CNIB is the primary provider of O&M training in Toronto, which includes how to use the subway. I have witnessed a student being trained to detect the floor tiles via cane at Yonge station (a near-impossible task mid-platform, easier at platform edge).

    A typical blind person who has gone through O&M training and has some experience has no significant trouble using the subway for familiar paths, routes, origins, and destinations. Then there’s the rest of them.

    So yes, accessibility to blind and low-vision passengers did not begin or end with automated stop announcements.


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